This is the second of four profiles of the 2016 IHRA Drag Racing Series champions.
Billy Harper pulls to the starting line in his sinister-looking, jet-black Dodge Viper, vents the nitrous oxide over and over in a cloud of vapor that makes the Viper seem almost like something alive.
With Sonny Leonard power – 903 cubic inches – Harper’s 2000 Viper blasts down the straight, more often than not taking the win light. Then Billy Harper emerges, and those in the crowd that haven’t seen him before often may be in for a surprise.
“He looks like my grandfather!” said a woman at U.S. 131 Motorplex in Martin, Mich., where Harper wrapped up the 2016 IHRA Pro Modified championship.
This was Harper’s first full season back in drag racing since 2008, when he took a step back to deal with the recession, which was especially tough on construction businesses like his.
He is president and CEO of Harper Industries in Paducah, Ky., a $250 million holding company ranked by Engineering News-Record as the 279th largest construction firm in America. It is comprised of seven operating companies in construction-related enterprises, including Morsey, Inc., Federal Materials Concrete, Inc., Metro Ready Mix Concrete, Inc., Vanguard Contractors, Inc., Harper Construction, Inc., Frontier Materials Concrete, Inc. and Precision Steel.
Harper graduated from the University of Kentucky with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1966. And, according to the school, has given plenty back. He serves on the University of Kentucky Mechanical Engineering Advisory Council, and he helped establish the Paducah campus engineering program, which offers studies in Western Kentucky leading to bachelor’s degrees from the UK in mechanical engineering and chemical engineering. Harper Industries funds five full scholarships, four of which are for engineering students at the Paducah campus. He also helped develop a four-year degree program in concrete construction management at Middle Tennessee State University.
None of this explains his devotion to drag racing. “It’s something I’ve always been interested in, always loved,” he said. Harper gives a lot of credit to his crew for what he calls “a dream season,” including crew chief Dennis Radford and his first assistant, Jim Rowe.
“The most important thing is just having fun,” Harper said. “Even if you don’t win the race, you want to make sure you give it your all.”